Is your child starting school or are you having trouble dealing with the school? Below are 10 Advocacy Tips for making your child’s experience as positive as possible.
10. Trust your gut
If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t, which means you are going to need to be prepared to be observant. Often when teachers are in meetings, they have had pre-meetings. These meetings usually involve a member of the IEP/504 team and the child’s teacher(s). You may get a glimpse into those meetings if you watch the eyes of the teachers and the special education teacher. Sometimes, you might catch a sideward glance between two people, or a slight smile or frown at something that is said. It is important to stay observant and vigilant at all times. Which leads into number 9….
9. Do not trust the school to be honest with you
As a middle school teacher, I can tell you the school will lie to you if they think they can get away with it. More often than not, the lies are through omission. They just will not give you information unless you ask for it specifically.
Information is their commodity. They know they have more than you — until they don’t. Schools are not used to coming into contact with a parent who is knowledgeable.
Administration is an arm of the district. The district is concerned with one thing: how much does it cost? Testing, therapists, interventionists, curricula, and modifications all cost money. The school will attempt to save every nickel they can because their budgets are so thin.
Here’s where I defend the district and their cost savings. Michelle and I used to argue a lot about the cost of education among other things. Here is a typical argument:
Michelle: The school has to provide (intervention x).
Me: The school won’t pay for that.
Michelle: They have to.
Me: They can’t afford to.
Michelle: They better find the money from somewhere.
Me: From where?
Michelle: I don’t know, but they better find it.
Me: There isn’t any money.
The state does not give us enough money. We subsidize the state income with federal money that doesn’t go equally to everyone, so inner city kids get less per student. In our state, education budgets continue to be cut in favor of school choice. Schools have now been in the red for 20 years. This year, through pressure from the teachers, the legislature in our state gave a 20% raise to teachers. Sounds good, right? Except, since schools have been in the red for 20 years, the buildings are collapsing in the desert sun. AC units break down and are expensive to replace. You may have five AC units down in one building at the beginning of the year after sitting idle all summer. The money, given as a lump sum payment based on enrollment, could either be used to increase salaries or fix buildings. If 36 kids are in a classroom with no AC for an hour, that could be very hard for anyone to focus, let alone your child who is supposed to have an aide to help him concentrate and stay on task. Luckily, I live in a district that passes a bond every time it comes up, but not all do. Don’t get me wrong, there is an awful lot of waste as well, but that’s a different blog post. SQUIRREL!
8. Make friends with the teachers
Teachers, unlike the districts, really do want you to be knowledgeable. They are much more interested in talking to you if they feel like you know what it’s like to be a teacher. Ask about their procedures. Do they prefer texts? Emails? What’s a good day to set up conferences if they need? When is their prep? Can I come talk to just you during your prep? (Technically, you aren’t supposed to meet with the teacher during prep, but that’s why you should ask. If they do not want to be bothered, they will tell you — or should if they are being honest and not passive aggressive, which happens a lot more than you think).
Coffee is good. Not for me personally (I’m a Diet Mt. Dew kinda guy), but many teachers drink copious amounts of caffeine and will do your bidding for a mere $3 fix from a local coffee shop (or $12 if you go to Starbucks).
Stay involved. If you have not heard from your child’s teacher in a couple of weeks, reach out to him or her to see how things are going (by whichever method you have previously agreed upon). Ask him or her specifically about goals and progress toward them. Ask advice about whether or not the teacher feels your child is making adequate progress. The teacher is the FIRST line, and getting on his or her good side is definitely a way to resolve a lot of issues.
7. Document everything
Whether it is email, texts, or recordings of voice conversations, as was mentioned in #9, you cannot trust the school, and you must document everything. Schools HATE documentation (teachers love it). A school administrator will, more often than not, rely on telephone conversations. This is by design. Because the school will lie by omission, they will lie directly to you over the phone. They will then deny ever saying what they told you over the phone. Here is a typical example.
On the phone:
Parent: Hi. I’m concerned that my child may have a disability. Will you test him for a disability?
Psychologist: Absolutely. Right now, we are in the middle of testing. As soon as testing is over, we will start with the proper procedure. We’ll get back to you in a couple of weeks.
Parent: Well, I remember talking to you about this at the end of last year, and you told me the same thing, and then testing was over and then the end of the school year happened, and now here we are in October, and now my child is failing math and reading and I still think he has a disability.
Psychologist: Hmm…I don’t remember having that conversation. Maybe you talked to the counselor instead?
Parent: I’m pretty sure it was you, but it may have been the counselor.
Psychologist: Let me check around and make a few calls and I’ll figure out what happened.
And because none of that is documented, it never happened. If that conversation happens, immediately email whomever it was that you talked to and ask for clarification.
Hi, Mr. Psychologist, I just got off the phone with you and I wanted to verify a few things. First, when is the testing window for this round of testing? Second, when you say you’ll get back with me in a couple of weeks, can I set that meeting now? Thanks for your help.
6. Keep a binder
All this documentation you have been collecting is going to come in handy when you show up to the IEP/504 meeting with a binder that has every email communication, progress report, transcribed phone conversations, and all other forms you may need. Our organization, AESA, is currently working on a binder checklist for you to use to keep your information organized. At this point, if it’s a communication with the school, make sure it is either documented in writing or voice-recorded, and stick it all in a binder.
5. Use facts / not emotion
The quickest way to lose something is to become attached to it. These meetings are tactical. They require precise language that is based on fact and not opinion. Your vocabulary must remain data-based. This is about the data and the modifications that will help to bring the data back into alignment with the rest of the data. You have to think of your child the same way the school thinks of your child: as a data point. If you and the school can come to an agreement about the best way for the data point to improve using the lowest cost option, you will be set.
You must, however, remember that the school would rather spend absolutely zero dollars on you and will risk the data point not improving at all as long as it does not affect their bottom line.
4. The PIC
If you can find a fellow parent/grandparent/friend who can go in with you, that is even better. A second set of eyes is always helpful. There may be things that your Partner In Crime (PIC) may think are important that you may have missed. Your PIC may be there just to observe and take notes. Your PIC may begin a meeting by asking for everyone’s name and function. The PIC is also good for emotional strength. If you feel like the team is not listening to you it is easy to become emotional. Having a close friend there may be able to help keep your calm in the middle of this raging storm. It’s just good practice to bring a back up to a meeting. Teachers do it, principals do it, students do it, and so should parents. I would never advise going into a professional meeting alone. It is one reason why the police cannot force a citizen to speak without a lawyer.
3. Never be afraid to advocate for your child
Do not feel intimidated by the school. It’s easy to become intimidated at school. You are surrounded by people who have dedicated their lives to educating students, and you are about to talk shop with them. It is no less intimidating than discussing the brain with a neurosurgeon. Or at least you think it is. The hard truth, though, is that most of the people in that room know very little about special education law, regulations, requirements, or district procedures. They “say” they know, but they don’t really. Most of the time, their forms are stock forms with stock modifications. Preferential seating, extended time, calculator, computer, behavior log, are all already in place in a standard 504. They just print it off and show you how much they are working toward your child’s education.
Every general education teacher takes a class or two on special education. It is often the hardest class for most of us. Or maybe it just was for me. Their focus, though, is on how to make modifications to lessons for kids who have disabilities. They are looking at pedagogy and not on designing an IEP, or determining the pathway to getting an IEP. By the time most kids come to a general education teacher, they have already gone through the IEP process. The school psychologist is supposed to follow school procedure and district policy, but may or may not be told to deny all services from the start and never offer anything. If a psychologist has too many students identified as needing special education services, he or she will be replaced with someone more…efficient.
The special education coordinator (often the principal) will have a cursory understanding of the law and procedures and policy. He or she couldn’t quote it to you, but can tell whether or not something sounds right. He or she can look something up pretty quickly and have it available to you soon. The coordinator could mail you a copy of the procedures, but it will probably not be what you’re looking for anyway, so that’s another waste of time.
There really is no reason to be intimidated by these people at all. They all have more important meetings to attend to and none of them are really up to date on district policy and certainly are not familiar with the law. I would be surprised if you met many teachers who could tell you what ESSA is. Which is why number two is number two….
2. Research everything
I know you are busy. I know you have a million things to do. It’s a hard truth, but you have to make time. Remember that this is the education of your child. This is the rest of his or her life. A life that will be led after you are gone. You have the ability to alter the course of your child’s life if you never give up on it. That means spending the time doing what you are doing: research.
Research smart, though. Do not try to do this alone. There is too much information out there to sift through it all in the time you’re going to need. Having a friend for moral support at a meeting is nice and all, but nothing can replace confidence like knowledge. One of the comments in our local support group was to become, “contagious with knowledge and advocacy.” You should know everything there is to know about your child.
When our quads were born, it wasn’t long before Michelle noticed they were different. From that moment, she began to research medical journals for reasons why our children were the way they were. As the years progressed, thoughts turned from medical to educational. The transition between the two was neuropsych domains. Evaluations are the basis for accommodations, but they are very difficult to understand unless you research the terms and figure out what the scores on the tests mean. If you rely on the school, they will skew the data: “Well, it’s only a slight delay in speech. It’s not really enough to need a therapist. We’ll allow him to type his responses instead.”
Because there is so much data to go through, joining a group is often the most efficient way to get information as quickly as you can. Our group has almost 5000 members who all report they have their questions answered in less than 24 hours. Often, the answers are within an hour or two depending on need and desperation. A member can drop a question to the group and go back to taking care of whatever it is they’re doing and come back a couple hours later and they’ll have three answers, two follow-up questions, and two or nine medical journal articles or citations of law/procedure along with a funny meme about how tough IEP meetings are and how we are all just struggling through.
There is a lot of fellowship in a group as well. The people you meet have the same issues you do. Some just had the same thing happen to them. Another is afraid that’s what is going to happen to them. First time IEP meeting jitters and late night crying sessions lead to the community growing into a family — a network of parents all looking to improve education for their child and for the world.
As I monitor our group, I am constantly amazed at how supportive and caring the members are. With that said, though, there is a purpose. The page is not for the weak. You are going to hear truth. But truth is what you need. Going back to #5, there is no room for emotion. This group is not a pity party. This group is intended to empower its members with knowledge they can use to fight for the rights of their child. This may be a battle (hopefully with these tips, it won’t be), and the group will give you every piece of information it can if you ask specific questions. But with those answers will come the encouragement and stories that will spurn you on to fight another day.
At the end of the day, it is the parent that must fight. It is your job to do everything in your power to get every service, every tutor, every therapy, every modification, and stop at nothing until you get it, even if it means going to due process.
1. Prior Written Notice
True to the page, we won’t let emotion dictate our top ten list. We are about being practical and offering information. Our #1 tip is to use the school’s Prior Written Notice (PWN) form to your advantage. This is, by far, the most talked about form we have. It is intended as a document to hold the district accountable for denying services. If a school says they will not modify or provide accommodations, the PWN is intended to give the school’s reason for denying the service and the name of the person in charge of making that decision.
This document can then be used in a due process case (if it has to go that far). The PWN, as with all other documentation you should be collecting, is a nice concise list of all your demands that were not met, why those demands were not met, and who made those decisions.
So, there you have it. Top 10 Advocacy things you should know.